I am delighted to bring you an extract from Malcolm Hollingdrake’s debut novel, Only The Dead
Bloodhound Books (20 Nov. 2016)
“Revenge proves its own executioner”
John Ford (1586-1639?)
There is no known antidote, even today. With the modern marvels witnessed in medical science, there is nothing to help you. It literally makes you want to weep!
After an attack, you would know nothing of the danger you were in, you would only feel the wet, oily substance in your hair and on your forehead. You would feel its viscosity on your fingers, smell it and experience a sensation in the eyes that is often brought on by peeling onions; slight discomfort and watery, but nothing frightening. Your initial reaction would fade as you wiped your hand on a tissue before throwing it into a litter bin. Feeling foolish for feeling scared, you might make your way to meet with friends or return home. At the earliest opportunity, you would check your hair in a mirror and would try to clean away the matted residue. You might think it was from a bird. You would only grow curious and more anxious as you began to cough a little and tears filled your eyes for no reason. You would not feel ill, just a little silly and possibly embarrassed at your inability to control your tears. In one to two hours, however, all that would change.
Detective Chief Inspector Cyril Bennett stared at the strange face that gurned back from the misted bathroom mirror; it was far from the face he knew. He deliberately closed his eyes but only one obeyed his order, the right eye continued to study the reflected disfigurement. It had to be said that the toothpaste liberally spread round his lop-sided lips and the fact that it continued its path to drip from stubble on his chin, didn’t enhance his appearance. Three days ago he had been fine. It had been a long day, yes, nothing abnormal in that, followed by a few relaxing drinks in the Black Swan and one or two night-caps once home and this was what he had awoken to.
“Bloody Bell’s pissing, poxy palsy,” he groaned in a strong, Yorkshire accent. “Great!”
If a cliché could bombard the senses then Lawrence Young was right in the middle of a war zone. The swaying, honey-coloured corn lay mottled red by the Papaver rhoeas; both were caressed in gentle waves as if some invisible hands were moving with stealth. They wafted left and right in the morning breeze that was slowly succeeding in clearing the dawn mist that still greyed the horizon’s blue. Damp, earthy smells drifted from the boot-disturbed, ochre soil, but it wasn’t just these sensory intrusions that brought sadness and yet at the same time a smile to his lips. Somewhere above this flatness was the shrill, broken call of a sky lark, its Morse code-like trill filling the emptiness of the morning with a welcoming yet warning call.
Leaning against the wooden gate post, he tilted his head, his eyes scanning the endless blue in search of the bundle of noise. The distinct lack of a visual reference point made its location a challenge. He shaded his eyes with a gloved hand, stared into the distance and then back again. Suddenly, out of nothing, appeared the small, brown bird bobbing up and down as if elevated by the energy of its song. His eyes followed the moving bird as the sound filled his head giving the penultimate clue to his location. Slowly, he let his eyes drift earthward, leaving the bird to its morning reveille. Here then was the last clue, the row upon row of white, Portland stones, meticulously maintained in soldier rows; the large, sword-emblazoned cross, a protecting arm over the fallen, stood semi-silhouetted against the morning blue. A stronger breeze grew from nowhere to make the corn whisper as if in protest at the intrusion and a strange, malevolent tingle ran to the nape of his neck. Words grew in his head as his eyes drifted skyward again.
“In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing, fly…”
He knew it by heart. He knew that it had been written after the funeral of Alexis Helmer by his friend, a Canadian physician, ninety-eight years ago and that the poet had discarded it, dissatisfied with his work, frustrated, no doubt, by the senselessness and futility of this grim and hopeless place. The Canadian was probably disheartened by the endless, surgical hours toiled to save a few of England’s finest, the frustration of knowing that infections would kill as many as the bullets and the bombs.
Lawrence took out a small tissue, removed his glasses and cleaned the lenses; he misted each lens with his warm breath before rubbing the glass clean. Holding up the tissue in the growing breeze he watched it flutter as if he were giving it life and then he released it to drift away. It moved freely, butterfly-like, over the road and then tumbled a short distance before being held fast by an ear of corn, gently flapping in protest at a journey cut too short.
The growing noise of a tractor engine drowned the sound of the lark. He turned to look, angered by the distraction and intrusion.
‘Why are tractors so large these days?’ he said out loud.
The ground shook gently as the green Leviathan, its complicated and unidentifiable attachment erect and tail-like, passed. The driver gave a cheery wave. Once its rumble had ceased, his eyes scanned for the paper but it had gone, swallowed like young men in Ypres’mud. Lost! Strangely the lark too had given up on the day.
He moved away from the post and his gloved hand lifted the metal cylinder of corroded metal. He wrapped it with care and patience in a cut piece of car inner-tube before placing it in a rucksack. It was one of the 1.45 billion shells fired during the senseless battles that had raged, harvesting the blood of youth. This corroded relic was no souvenir; he knew just what it contained. He had rejected two other shell relics, dredged up by the farmers and left for collection by the Belgian Army’s Ordinance Disposal Company. First World War munitions were still killing as they were brought to the surface by ploughs. His harvest was very specific. He collected a poppy from the edge of the field and placed it alongside the shell he had chosen before swinging the sack over his shoulder. He looked in the direction of the tractor but it too had gone. Alone again, he moved away, happy that he had secured another quantity of Yperite.
How brilliantly does this start?!?
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